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For McCain, A Subdued Return to Capitol Hill

John McCain (R-Ariz.) returned to the Senate and a lower profile this week. " 'Let's go forward' was his essential message," a friend and former colleague said.
John McCain (R-Ariz.) returned to the Senate and a lower profile this week. " 'Let's go forward' was his essential message," a friend and former colleague said. (By Gerald Herbert -- Associated Press)

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By Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 20, 2008

He has returned to where he did not wish to return. Back to walking the spotted white marble corridors of the Russell Senate Office Building. Back to Room 241, which says "Senator John McCain -- Arizona" on the door, and where a trickle of people stroll in on this morning in hopes of getting his pre-autographed photo and to inquire about obtaining tickets for Barack Obama's inauguration. Others stare. He has perfected his own middle-distance stare and the curt nod of someone coping.

He quietly enters the office a few minutes after 8 a.m. on this Wednesday, tightly smiles at a receptionist and, without a word to anyone, makes a hard left through a suite of his aides' offices that leads to his own. He is alone. He walks now without so much as a single bodyguard, the Secret Service having disappeared when his dream of winning the presidency did, 15 days ago. It is a jarring reminder of just how much a defeated candidate's station changes in about two weeks.

Outside his office, just arriving, is a U.S. Capitol policewoman, casually taking a seat. She is there in case the hordes of media and sightseers become too large, or something alarming happens. Only the hordes are long gone. "I might not be here much longer if this keeps up," she says.

There is nothing like a massive electoral loss to strip someone of great relevance in Washington. Historically, the gilded carriage of a presidential nominee returns to being a pumpkin almost the instant he loses. The leased campaign jet is returned to its owners, old allies snipe behind his back about his campaign's failings, his power base erodes, and he is written off as a remnant of his party's past.

A campaign for the Oval Office is an all-or-nothing venture, and friends of McCain, who chased the presidency for the better part of 10 years, wonder how he is faring after the fall. As resilient as the former POW and fighter pilot has always been, there may be no coming all the way back, at age 72, from this spiral.

And yet, while his ultimate quest is over for good, there has been no time to really decompress. He has been busy since election night, his schedule fuller than any defeated candidate's in modern history, including a talk show, a conciliatory appearance with Obama and a rush back to Washington. "I don't think it's all really hit him; I don't see how it could have -- I'd like him to get some R&R as soon as this is over," says a former aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he thinks McCain, ever the contrarian, would reject his advice anyway.

But for now, the question of a bailout for American automobile companies and the lingering banking crisis preclude any thoughts of a vacation, rest, personal recovery. Besides, he has a 2010 Senate reelection campaign to ponder, and a record to keep building. No one quite knows for sure where John McCain goes from here, but what is clear to those closest to him is that his life will be different now.

He is exiting the office at this moment, walking alongside his communications director, Brooke Buchanan, down the corridor toward the elevators. Buchanan has already made it clear that McCain will not be doing interviews. A few onlookers smile politely at him, but no one approaches. "Where is he going?" a man asks. "Somebody caucusing somewhere?"

His suit jacket off, McCain is going to have a haircut, actually, in the Senate barbershop, down in the basement of Russell. Clad in blue shirt sleeves, pumping his arms in that familiar charging way of his, he has fixed his stare dead ahead on the elevator. He comes to a stop beside a neatly dressed young man carrying a black tote bag stuffed with documents, waiting for his own elevator. "Obama for President" says the small campaign button on his bag.

The reminders are all around him, but he does not seem to mind. When his haircut is finished half an hour later, he walks back to an elevator, with a few people now and then smiling and mumbling a few words to him: "Welcome back, Senator. . . . Nice to see you again, Senator."

"Thank you very much," he calls back.

Despite the solace that friends often try to provide, it can feel to a defeated nominee as if his life has ended. "I thought the world had died," said George McGovern, reflecting a few years ago on his 1972 landslide loss to Richard M. Nixon. For McGovern, the profound sadness did not lift for a year. "How long until I get over this?" a down Walter Mondale asked him in the wake of his own loss in 1984, to which McGovern wryly responded, "I'll let you know when I get there."

But there are success stories among failed presidential candidates: In the years that followed his landslide 1964 loss to Lyndon B. Johnson, Barry Goldwater became more popular than ever, heralded as a principled and quirky renegade. More recently, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) dived quickly back into his legislative work after his 2004 loss and won kudos in the recent campaign for his activities on behalf of Obama.

McCain's old associates, including his presidential campaign's strategist, Steve Schmidt, observe that he is determined to emerge from his loss as an enduring force in American politics. "I think past is prologue for McCain," said Schmidt, who talks regularly to him. ". . . He is determined to advance the national interest in the ways he sees regardless of party and partisanship. It's still McCain, and he will continue to be a leader for the party for that reason."

"He is going nowhere," Schmidt said.

Few close to McCain see him returning for good to Phoenix or his Sedona ranch. Too restless, too driven to do that, they say. Late in the morning, a former Senate colleague, Dan Coats of Indiana, pays him a visit. Coats, who campaigned during the last few weeks of the race with McCain in Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina, expects only to get a minute or so with his busy friend, just enough time to pass along his good wishes and to give him a book. But McCain has time on this day, and the two men talk privately for 20 minutes at least. Coats tells him how painful the loss was for him personally. McCain responds that he doesn't want or need to hear such commiseration. " 'Let's go forward' was his essential message," a smiling Coats said in the corridor afterward. "Though John put it in his own way. He's not a guy for feeling sorry for yourself."

Coats told his friend that he hoped "he'd stay in the game," and McCain indicated he had no plans to do otherwise. "I just told him I wanted to express my admiration for everything he did in the campaign and other times," Coats said. ". . . Other people had an emotional letdown now and then, but John never wavered; he pumped us up at the end. It was John being strong, even though the handwriting was on the wall. That's why I think he's going to be fine. He's best when it's tough."


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